Sunday, July 22, 2007

Apostle to the Apostles: A Sermon for the Feast of Mary Magdalene

“Apostle to the Apostles”
Mark 16:1-8 (9-11)
July 22, 2007

Someone I’m close to is completely un-churched. She was not raised in the church, she has no interest in the church (except insofar as it has an impact on my life), and she’ll probably never darken the door of a church. So, naturally, I like trying sermon ideas out on her.

As we were walking along the newly completed river trail this week, I said, “So, I’m going to preach on Mary Magdalene this Sunday.”

She gave it a stab: “The prostitute?”

Me (getting excited): “No! And that’s part of the point. She’s not a prostitute! The way I see it, it was a smear job.”

She tried again: “So, immaculate or whatever, that one?”

Me (even more excited): “No! There are lots of Mary’s in the New Testament! That one’s the Roman Catholic idea of the Mother of Jesus.”

She gave it one last attempt: “So is this the one who was married to Jesus?”

Every time July 22 falls on a Sunday, the folks who organize the lectionary give us the option of celebrating Mary Magdalene. There’s something about Mary that has caused her to be the subject of much talk… not just for the last four years, since the publication of The DaVinci Code, but for far, far longer than that. Of all the subjects in scripture that artists might paint, Mary is among the most commonly depicted. There are literally thousands of books on the market that have her as their subject. She even has her very own “Idiot’s Guide” book! Despite all this, Mary remains shrouded in mystery… a shadowy figure on whom the church and the faithful have cast their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and even their contempt for nearly two millennia. So why don’t we take this time to try to part the mists, to learn what we can about the woman who has been called “Apostle to the Apostles.” And then, why not ask, once we’ve rid ourselves of all the myths and misunderstandings, what can Mary teach us about what it means to be a follower of Jesus?

The primary thing we know about Mary Magdalene is this: in all four gospels, she answers the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” with a resounding “Yes!” Mary is a witness to the horrible, painful, humiliating death of Jesus, one of a handful of disciples who stand nearby while Jesus is being crucified, when most of his followers have fled. And Mary is a witness to the resurrection. She is the only person to be named in all four gospels, as being present at the tomb on Easter morning.

Aside from that, there are only two things we know about Mary Magdalene from scripture. In the middle of Luke’s gospel, he tells us the following:

Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward…, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. [Luke 8:1-3]

These are the only two biographical fragments we have about Mary: that she was healed of possession by seven demons, and that she, along with other women, provided for Jesus and his disciples. Now, it seems that this possession by demons is, believe it or not, the kernel of the fiction that Mary was a prostitute. Here is how that came about. I have mentioned the fact that there are many Mary’s in the New Testament. This occurred for the same reason that there were many Diana’s in Great Britain in the 1980’s: a member of the royal family was named Mary; so, many girls were given that name at birth. As the New Testament was read and preached in the first centuries after Jesus, Mary Magdalene was mistakenly identified with another New Testament Mary, Mary of Bethany. That Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet in gratitude after Jesus raised her brother from the dead.

But there are multiple stories of women anointing Jesus, and one of those women is referred to as a sinner. So, someone put the sinner together with Mary of Bethany, and then put them together with Mary Magdalene, and came up with Mary Magdalene, sinner. Pope Gregory the Great tied it all together nicely with a bow in the 6th century when he delivered a sermon claiming that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and that the seven demons that had gone out from her were the seven deadly sins. But if we look closely at scripture, if we read the words that are actually there, and if we are careful to separate Mary from Mary, there is simply no evidence of this. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.

How could this happen? It helps if we understand the position of women in the early church. This was still an era in which women were considered to be property, either of their fathers or their brothers or their husbands. Women very seldom had professions or held public positions of any kind. A woman who was well known had better be well known for something to do with the man in her life… otherwise her notoriety had something sinister about it, something suspect. Some think this is one reason that so many of the women in scripture are unnamed… it was actually a way of protecting their reputations.

But there was something about Mary that prevented her name from being kept secret. That she was there, at the tomb, before sunrise on that day of resurrection… and that she was the one whom Jesus sent to tell the others… these facts gave her a fame that, perhaps, made some uncomfortable. Perhaps, some whose stories are not so flattering… those who denied Jesus, or ran away. Perhaps those who were concerned about leadership roles in the early church. Perhaps it served them to see that Mary’s reputation was damaged. Perhaps it served them to see that the apostle to the apostles was effectively put in her place.

The other notion that has gained much currency in popular culture is the belief that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or lover. This thought seems to be rooted in a single line in the gospel of John. Remember that in this version of the resurrection story, Mary is weeping in the garden, and is talking with a man whom she supposes to be the gardener, but whom we know to be Jesus. Finally, Jesus calls her name, “Mary!” She replies, “Rabbouni,” or “My Teacher.” Then we have the line that has led to all the speculation: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me…’” [John 20:17]

Those little words, “Do not hold on to me,” have led people to wonder whether Mary attempted to embrace Jesus. That may well be true. But that’s a pretty slender thread on which to presume marriage. John’s intention in this scene is clear: Jesus has a purpose for Mary, and understandable as it is that she might want to embrace him, his purpose for her is that she go, and leave him to fulfill what must be fulfilled. Mary is being commissioned. She is being sent.

Let me be clear: the thought of a married Jesus does not alarm me. I just don’t find any basis for that notion in scripture. And the need to make Mary Jesus’ wife… well that’s just the other side of the coin of the need to make her a prostitute. For both Mary’s fans and her rivals, this woman is more manageable if they can put her in a category they recognize. But she defies categories. She is more complex than the categories of first century Palestine will allow.

And so we come at last to our passage today. Now that we know who Mary is not… not a prostitute, not Jesus’ wife… perhaps we can see her for who she is.

And, Mark tells us, she is a woman terrified and amazed. Most scholars believe the original ending of Mark’s gospel is right where I left off reading… “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]. That’s it. The first gospel to circulate through the early church, and the news of the resurrection is left unspoken, untold. The woman disciples, including Mary, are entrusted with news that they simply don’t convey. Not yet.

So our first glimpse of Mary is that she’s terrified. Sometimes being a follower of Jesus is terrifying. It has been a long time since Christians were thrown to the lions, but there are at this moment about 20 South Korean Christians being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there are other kinds of fear that can overwhelm us, even here in this sanctuary. For many of us who love the Lord, who love the gospel and who love our church, the real fear these days is that our churches will not survive. We fear that they won’t survive the transformations of culture that swirl all around us. We fear that they won’t survive the death of the greatest generation, the builders who engineered and energized a great and thriving era. We fear they won’t survive the iPod and computer generations, our children and grandchildren whose tastes seem so foreign and who are so conspicuously absent from so many of our churches. Like Mary, we see something that frightens and confuses us—and we are given a commission to go and tell good news even in the face of all our fear. And we aren’t ready. Not yet.

But Mary does go. A later scribe decided the rest of the story needed to be told, and that’s where the second ending of Mark comes in. And clearly, Mary does fulfill her commission. She meets Jesus. She goes, she tells. And the people she tells are still mourning and weeping and want none of what she has to offer. So our second glimpse of Mary is, though she is terrified, she carries the message of Jesus. She carries it to those who don’t appear to be ready to hear it.

And that is a position many of us find ourselves in. You’ve heard the phrase, “Preaching to the choir.” Well, every Sunday we ministers have the easiest job of all Christian disciples. We preach to those who are already interested in hearing what we have to say… you’re here! You’ve shown up! Much, much more difficult is bearing the message of Jesus to those who don’t show up here. My conversation with my friend on the river walk is a lot harder than preaching a sermon. We don’t want to be considered fanatics. We don’t want people to think we’re unbalanced, unreasonable, unscientific, intolerant… whatever the current clichés about Christians are. On top of that, we’re not convinced we are the best messengers. Who will listen to me? What do I have to offer?

In the middle of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Harry’s friends ask him for help. They are aware that a terrible conflict between the forces of good and evil is inevitable, and they want to be able to fight on the side of good. They want to be able to defend themselves. So they ask Harry to teach them. Harry says, no, you can’t mean me. He says, I’m not that good. He says, it was all luck. He says, there must be someone who’s a better teacher than I am. He says, we’ll get in trouble. Then, he says yes. He doesn’t feel equipped. He feels like a fraud. But he recognizes the imperative of his life or death situation, and he does it.

We followers of Jesus may be given what feels like an impossible job—sharing our faith when we don’t feel up to the task, when we are full of fear. We might be tempted to say, no, I’m not that good. I’m not the one. We might be tempted to feel, my friends don’t want to hear this, they’re not ready. But the truth is, we in the church are in our own life or death situation. And the good news is that God takes the work of disciples just like us and blesses it, every single day. God takes the casual conversation entered into hesitantly and provides a blessing. God takes the bold overture made in the face of fear and breaks down a barrier. God takes the person who is sure he can’t find the right words, and uses the expression in his eyes to open a door in someone’s heart. God takes women and men and children just like us, and through our hesitant and humble efforts, builds up the body of Christ, one reckless act of witness at a time. God takes a Mary Magdalene—a gossiped about, flawed, wounded but healed woman—and puts the good news of salvation in her mouth. And God can take us—fearful, hopeful, trying our best—and do the same. Amen.


Barbara B. said...

wonderful! thanks so much for posting!

Mrs. M said...

YAY!!! Thank you, this is wonderful!

hipchickmamma said...

wonderful! as i read,
" For both Mary’s fans and her rivals, this woman is more manageable if they can put her in a category they recognize. But she defies categories. She is more complex than the categories of first century Palestine will allow." my brain was shouting AMEN!

it's fabulous!

i LOVE your HP reference!

Diane said...

I really like this, especially saying that Mary M defies categories... lots of good stuff here...

Sally said...

truly excellent Mags- thank you for this very sane and yet very powerful sermon.

Singing Owl said...

Oh, this was GOOD. I sayd "ditto" to What hickchickmama said.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Mags, this is beautiful. You've sorted out what we know from the Gospels and what was made up somewhere along the way.

She seems to have loved Jesus very much, as she stayed with him till the end, after other of his followers had left, and afterwards she bore witness.

Anonymous said...

Great sermon and insight into Mary's role. Thanks for sharing it, and thanks also for your kind comments on my blog.